LITERARY TRADITIONS: Writing Seoul Across Borders
The city of Seoul in South Korea has often been known as the capital of plastic surgery and K-pop. And while it’s true that these have had an unmistakable influence on contemporary Korean culture and generational perspectives, Seoul represents far more than what’s on the surface--beyond the geographical landscape, there are socio-political factors at hand that have much more influence.
As a child, I attended a predominantly Asian American school in Silicon Valley, with Chinese Americans and Korean Americans making up more than eighty percent of the population. Our conversations were not just centered around the latest news in entertainment or the release of a new iPhone, but also the differences between Asia and America.
To us, an understanding of our heritage wasn’t readily accessible; Asian American parents were insistent on achieving academic success before we could recognize our ethnic roots. K-pop was how we discovered people that looked like us in pop culture. Asian-American beauty standards were always present; we used Westernized “whitening” beauty products aimed towards achieving “fair” skin, and dreamed about cosmetic surgery that would lead to increased chances of success in the workplace. We hid K-dramas behind our math textbooks and when we weren’t talking about college, we were talking about our favorite idols.
As we grew older, our discussions transitioned from kimchi to the significance behind traditional recipes, and from Hallyu to the aftereffects of the Korean War. Although these were simplistic perceptions of a nation, they were ultimately my entry point into not only learning about South Korea, but also how the country had evolved over time. I wanted to know about bloodlines, but more than that, the dichotomy between western standards and traditional ones and the interaction between the two.
My research paper on the race-based sensation of plastic surgery in South Korea examined why blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery) has such a prominent presence within Korean culture; physical incisions and folds were not only representative of social custom, but also Western influence. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee made me think about how language is fundamentally shaped by identity as well as culture, and how people are inherently defined by their ancestry. I became fascinated by the hyphenated relationships between countries.
Literature became a way of further understanding the complexity of foreign relations between the United States and Korea: attempts at writing sijo during waiting periods at the eye doctor’s office taught me the importance of form, and Yi Min-ho’s writing on poverty and Oriental heritage allowed me to look at how peacebuilding plays a role in contemporary Korean society. I immersed myself in Korean culture through films like Seoul Station, which taught me the dystopian consequences of social inequalities and materialism within the city.
Studying Seoul in both historical and international contexts has enabled me to further expand on the knowledge I’ve gained from my individual study of South Korea, while also providing an opportunity for conflict analysis. As a second-generation immigrant, the process of translation for me has always been aligned with diplomacy and peacebuilding, both of which are essential to involvement in our global society. The ability to serve as both a storyteller and scholar has reinforced my ninth grade research on contemporary culture while also developing it into writing that encompasses not just the current state of the country--food, politics, land--but an extensive knowledge of its architecture, collectives, and people.
Given the opportunity to visit Seoul, I would be able to travel the streets of Myeongdong, the city’s largest commercial district, and fully immerse myself in Korean culture at the intersection of arts and culture. I would explore the activism that has characterized the district at the Myeongdong, while also taking note of the evidence of cosmetic surgery in the streets and documenting my observations through photos and writing.
Visiting the War Memorial of Korea would enable me to understand what I’ve only been able to discuss with my peers and provide me a more in-depth understanding of Korean history. Walking through the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) would allow me to examine how borders are drawn and how peace trains are formed. Spending an afternoon at the Museum of Korean Literature would be a comprehensive experience in viewing the evolution of stories from past to present.
The ability to have a sustained relationship with Seoul through literature is an experience that has helped me understand the world from different points of view. Studying Seoul in its current political context is a way of incorporating that understanding into real communities. This comes in more obvious forms--K-culture--but also in more subtle ways, like the nuances of language used to describe peace activism.
By connecting to people on a deeper level and sharing that knowledge with our communities, we enable others to understand the importance of a city as an ethnic and political source, as well as the importance of keeping their stories alive.